In the rush to give shoppers what they want, when they want, and on whatever device, retailers have flocked to omnichannel offers and tempting promotions. But those offers will only cost them lost profits and lost future customers without investment in non-sexy back-end systems and logistics processes.
This past Christmas and peak sales period, many retailers were unable to deliver on the fundamentals of meeting customer promises - stock available to buy and timely order delivery. Retailers have been over-promising, especially when selling through their omnichannel networks, which has created a nasty feedback loop that exacerbated existing changes in customer behavior and exposed underlying weakness in back-end and logistics systems.
It’s no secret that the recent Christmas shopping chaos backlogged many retailers who didn’t invest in their back-end systems and was one of the reasons parcel delivery company, City Link, went bust. The backlog happened for a few reasons - the massive discounts in the lead up to Christmas kicked in earlier, continued longer and shifted January trading into the peak Christmas trading period. Also, a surge in early online purchases took product out of stock, much of which was later destined to come back as returns (in some categories e-commerce returns rates will have come close to 50 per cent).
With the ‘new shopping’ - major advancements in e-commerce and m-commerce selling that make a customer’s buying experience as convenient as possible - the future of retail is certainly here. Retailers want to offer their customers everything from click and collect services and free same-day shipping to lenient return policies, but without a proper strategy on how to meet these offers they are prone to disappointing customers and losing money from returned products that would have otherwise been kept.
Vicky Brock, chief executive of Clear Returns, said that ‘back-end tech and systems integration are not sexy and they don’t win shiny awards or get much PR, but they do allow businesses to survive, compete and thrive. If there’s a failure anywhere in the process it’s a failure of the retailer’.
Usually after customers receive their delayed products weeks after the holidays ‘they return them’, Brock said. ‘This year, that New Year returns spike happened during Christmas trading, which had an impact right across the supply chain and onto the shop floor, and it contibured longer due to those process failures. The thing a lot of people forget about is the impact of returned products on profits, and waiting weeks for a pair of boots to arrive in the mail only gives the customer time to reconsider their purchase or to find another pair of boots that they like better’.
As much as delays in delivery kept customers waiting in the lead up to Christmas, it also lead to a pile up of unprocessed returns, with little time to repackage them and get them back out on the shelves for consumers to buy. Next year we can expect that more emphasis will be put on the prediction and processing of returns, so that they don’t sit on a warehouse shelf decaying and losing value. Clear Returns helps retailers identify what will return and when, which will be information needed to avoid these customer experience and profit killing issues next year.